Building Green

For Churches, What's Wrong with Green?

May 28, 2008


Why do many faith communities hesitate about sustainability in building programs?

St. Malo, France Recently, I received a request for qualifications (RFQ) from a church in North Texas. Among other priorities, they expressed interest in green design; they asked what it would take to acquire a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. In recent years, LEED ratings have become the measurement of resource efficiency for buildings in North America, with numerous commercial and governmental buildings earning certification. I realized, with some surprise, that this RFQ was the first time I have seen such a request from a church.

So, why don’t more churches and congregations take a prominent role in the movement towards sustainable building? Nearly all religious groups have deep-rooted theological precepts to preserve and nurture the earth. Churches have historically been in the vanguard of social movements for betterment and change. Religious teachings of many widely differing faiths promote responsible and moral choices in response to the needs of the world. Gluttony and waste are named as sinful behaviors. When one considers the opportunities for sustainability in the long life of a church building, why do we allow our church buildings to be sources of wastefulness? At the very least, why are churches behind the curve on this sustainability innovation?

Well, one answer is right there: innovation. Churches are almost always working with limited resources: donated funds and volunteer efforts, so they tend to shy away from anything that is untested or outside the standard norms of construction. Though LEEDs certification and some kinds of green building practices are becoming increasingly mainstream, they still are considered as cutting edge concerns. This, in some ways, is due to the heavy promotion of certain designs and innovations that are the most innovative or unusual. In reality, the majority of green practices are basic to quality building, and in many instances, have been around for generations. So, in effect, the very flashy promotions that get attention for green building may be the very things that make churches less interested.

A related issue is that churches are understandably leery of anything that adds complications to a building program. To gain a LEEDs rating requires additional consultants and paperwork. Parishioners ask: “Is green building worthwhile for us? Can we justify the expense? Will we have to limit another part of our program to afford or add sustainability?” New studies are just being released that document the typical size and payback for an investment in the LEEDs program. This information should be helpful in addressing these questions, but unfortunately, few of the programs studied will include churches.

Politics has also proven to be a limiting factor. Many green programs have been initiated or are associated with politically prominent environmental groups. Those groups, and those opposing them, have used the environment as wedge issues to motivate and separate groups of voters. Though many religious groups tend toward conservative issues, I find that most congregations, regardless of political leanings, want to avoid anything that could be controversial or divisive when engaging in a capital campaign and building program.

LEED requirements that most churches already meet

I shared my concerns with one of the leading sustainability experts in the southwestern United States, Rich MacMath of HDR Engineering (Austin, Texas office). Rich recently helped establish Austin’s internationally recognized Green Building program and currently consults on projects all over the country. We discussed the challenges in getting more churches to actively participate in the green program. As we discussed the challenges, I began to realize that there are many LEED principles that are quite compatible with congregations’ interests. Moreover, a number of LEED requirements are steps that most churches already take. We quickly concluded that, with foresight and planning, nearly all churches can readily meet and embrace sustainability in their building programs.

One of the first LEED criteria, site location, is already, in most cases, a point in a congregation’s favor. LEED discourages green-field development that adds to urban sprawl. An applicant gets points for proximity to already developed areas, with good transportation connections and choices. Temples, churches, and mosques naturally locate on sites near centers of neighborhood activities and population concentration. Furthermore, the majority of church building comes from expansions or renovations on existing sites. With some careful planning, most church sites meet or exceed LEED requirements. Some better use of access to public transit or walking connections to shared-use parking may add points, while also positively impacting the church’s program.

The majority of congregations do most building with at least some existing facilities. A congregation may choose to save or adaptively re-use an existing building because of budget limits or sentimental attachments. But, whatever the motivation, renovation and re-use, as opposed to tear-down and new construction, is another major principal of green building. So, points are easily obtained for conservation and re-use of existing church buildings.

Another LEED principle has to do with energy usage times. Most commercial buildings have their peak energy use during the weekday business hours, whereas religious facilities peak during specific worship times (Sunday (or Saturday) mornings and evenings, weekday evenings). Once again, an aspect of LEED programming looks to disperse energy usage to reduce the peak consumption. This means churches line up naturally with other facilities for more efficient use of the energy grid.

Use of daylight has long been associated with worship spaces. Churches often will consider orientation in order to add drama or color with stained glass installations. Views to gardens or natural vistas are prevalent in many modernist churches built in the 1950s and 1960s. Churches, however, cannot necessarily specify fewer fixtures because of daylighting. They typically will need to have sufficient supplemental lighting for evening events. Also, an aging population demands nearly task lighting levels in order to read from hymnals or programs. However, the increased use of dimmers and pre-set controls does allow for lower use of electric lighting for many functions.

Other energy conservation programs do not work so well for churches. Because the major spaces are used for worship and social gatherings, the efficiency and sizing of HVAC units and the insulation factors that LEED promotes are often not practical. An office building may be at its peak usage for 40 or 50 hours a week, whereas a church’s sanctuary may be at peak usage only 6 to 8 hours in the same timeframe. The payback for the extra cost of equipment or super insulation cannot justify the extra cost.

Some programs may have applications for churches but require more attention and maintenance to be practical. Most natural ventilation and water harvesting systems require some level of diligent attention. A highly motivated volunteer or a well-established monitoring team could make these types of programs work for many churches, but the congregation would need to commit to them in the planning stages.

In the future…

In the next several years, I see an important role for architects and planners who work with churches. We should be far more engaged with sustainability programs to help adapt them to church standards. Churches should not be penalized for portions of the LEEDs point system that are impractical or counterproductive to their needs. Even more important, we need to become better educators of our church clients. We can cut through the jargon and political debates and show in clear, practical terms the benefits of sustainable design. We need to dialogue with congregations to understand their concerns and priorities, and be both patient and creative in finding appropriate solutions.

Ben Heimsath, AIA is a Principle of Heimsath Architects, Austin, Texas, U.S.A.

Photo by Johan van Parys taken in St. Malo, France.


Shared Creative Moments: The Genesis of Spiritual Space

[Return to top]